Wednesday, February 24, 2010

fat-cow disease (amos)

Fat-cow disease (amos)

Now, I know you kids are far too young to remember, but there was a time – many, many years ago – before the iPod was invented. Now children, these were dark years. We had the Internet, but it was dial up and it ran through a phone jack connected to the wall. Back in the day we called them “landlines.” Anyway, back in the dark ages – or as its known in scholarly circles, 1992 – music was stored on a compact disk, or what some of us called a “CD.”

As you can imagine, CD’s were popular, but they were also expensive – unless, of course, you stole them from Columbia House. You see all you had to do was fill out a form, embellish the truth, and then wait for 20 CD’s to arrive in the mail on credit. Sure there was a one form per person rule, but I got my younger brother involved, we had two homes, we had friends, and over time our collection grew to over 75 CD’s, which I kept locked in my room. Now, that was a lot but it wasn’t enough, I wanted more, and so I made a plan. My younger brother was obsessed with our collection and so one day I made what I told him was a super secret proposal. For $300, I’d give him full ownership of the CD’s, with one exception – the CD’s would stay under my control and he could only listen to the CD’s with my permission. He was 8 years old at the time. The $300 was money he had saved from past Christmases and birthdays – we had a generous grandmother. Anyway, my defenseless brother gave me the $300. I then wrote a fake title of ownership. Weeks later I resold half the CD’s without telling my bother. I wish that were the end. I then stole the fake title that I gave him, and in the process secured a place for myself in hell. Anyway, I took advantage of my brother. I got richer at his expense. He, of course, got poorer.

The prophet Amos would have ripped me apart. God used Amos to give the people of Israel a serious wake up call. You see Amos’ time wasn’t that unlike our own – the rich kept getting richer and the poor kept getting poorer. In fact, the rich would use unjust economic practices to take advantage of the poor and over time they grew complacent. They thought God didn’t notice, or perhaps that He didn’t care. That is until one day Amos shows up with a message from God – “the injustice in your land makes me sick. You cannot worship me with one hand, and oppress the poor with the other. I love the poor and the defenseless and if you love me, then you have to love them too.”

Amos came onto the scene around 750 BC. He’s the first of the writing prophets. Elijah and Elisha were prophets before him, but we only know about their lives through other people. But Amos tells us a lot about himself. He was a farmer from Tekoa – a little town outside of Bethlehem – and one day God tells Amos to leave his sheep, to go to Samaria, and to give a message to the people of Israel. Now remember, God’s family got a divorce – there is a northern kingdom and a southern kingdom. Samaria is the capital city of the northern kingdom. It’s the center of wealth and power in Israel, kind of like Washington DC and New York City combined. But not only that, Israel is experiencing a time of peace and growth and economic prosperity. If you’re an upper-middle class citizen, you’re wealthy and really happy with your life. To put things in modern terms, the market is up and you’re making a killing. There’s only one problem – you’re killing the poor in the process. But if you’re making money, who cares? Amos’ message is simple. God does. Here’s just a portion of what Amos says to Israel’s elite, upper class.

They buy and sell upstanding people. 
 People for them are only things—ways of making money. They'd sell a poor man for a pair of shoes. They'd sell their own grand mother! They grind the penniless into the dirt and shove the luckless into the ditch. They've extorted from the poor and … they sit around drinking wine they've conned from their victims. Amos 2:6-8, The Message

Amos is clear. The sin of Israel isn’t blatant idolatry, as it was when Elijah prophesied. The sin of Israel is how they treat the poor. And so Israel is back to worshipping God, they’re back to reading their bible so to speak. But their spiritual life is out of balance. They may be worshiping rightly, but they are living wrongly. God has blessed them with abundance and instead of helping the poor out of that abundance they are hoarding God’s provision from themselves. They are living a life of luxury, poverty is all around them, and they don’t even care. And God sends Amos to tell Israel that their greed is breaking His heart. You see, the people are worshipping God, they’re going to church on Sundays, but the same things that break God’s heart are not breaking theirs. Their spiritual life is out of balance, and I think it’s important that we understand why. You see, when the people of Israel were still in the desert, before they entered the Promised Land, this is what God told them. It’s from Deuteronomy.

Make sure foreigners and orphans get their just rights. Don't take the cloak of a widow as security for a loan. Don't ever forget that you were once slaves in Egypt and God got you out of there. I command you: Do what I'm telling you. When you harvest your grain and forget a sheaf back in the field, don't go back and get it; leave it for the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow so that God will bless you in all your work. When you shake the olives off your trees, don't go back over the branches and strip them bare—what's left is for the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow. And when you cut the grapes in your vineyard, don't take every last grape—leave a few for the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow. Don't ever forget that you were a slave in Egypt. - Deuteronomy 24: 17-22, The Message

The reason their spiritual life is out of balance is because they’ve forgotten who they are. The Israelites have spiritual amnesia. They used to be poor and God made them rich. They used to be slaves and God made them free. They used to be exiles and God brought them home. And so before they enter the Promised Land God tells them, “I saved you from your oppressors, not because you deserved it, but because I love you. And so don’t you dare go and become the oppressor when you enter the Promised Land.” But that’s exactly what they did. They became the oppressor.

One of the most common commands in scripture, believe it or not, is a single word. Remember. Throughout the bible, and the Old Testament in particular, God tells his people to remember. Remember that when you were oppressed in Egypt, I showed you compassion. Remember that because I showed you compassion, you need to show compassion to the oppressed, the outcast, and the needy. Remember that I’m saving you to reveal my heart to the world, and so extend the same grace and the same justice to others that I’ve extended to you. Don’t forget that who you are cannot be separated from what I’ve done. Remember.

In Deuteronomy, God lists three people in particular – the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow. Historically speaking, foreigners immigrated to the land of Israel. Like modern day illegal immigrants without US citizenship, they had no rights and no privileges. Orphans were a lot more common in Amos’ day and because the orphanage had not yet been invented, God tells his chosen people to provide for the orphans. And finally, widows are mentioned, because in a patriarchal society, a woman with no husband had no voice and no money.

The word for people like this in our day is marginalized people. By definition, marginalized people are groups that will most likely be forgotten, mistreated, oppressed and taken advantage of unless someone speaks up. And the reason God is concerned for them is because they need someone to help them, to defend them, to love them.

Now, there’s a something each of us needs to face. The nature of sin is to marginalize certain people – to find people without power and to push them to the margins, out of the way. In the days of Amos, it was the foreigner, the orphan and the widow. Our responsibility as Christians is to figure out who the marginalized in our society are, and then to extend our compassion and our love to them – to seek justice for those who are treated with injustice. And it could be anyone – persons of color, senior citizens, immigrants, the homeless, people with physical or mental disabilities, prisoners, workers whose pay keeps going down but whose workload keeps going up – it could be anyone. It is so important that we understand the heart of God toward these people and that we communicate God’s love for them.

You see, Amos was sent to a people that saw injustice all around them and just didn’t care. In fact, they even felt good about their lives and their faith because they worshipped God on a regular basis. The word for this is complacency. The people Amos preached to were asleep in their complacency. And here’s just a portion of what Amos says to wake them up.

Listen to this, you cows of Bashan, grazing on the slopes of Samaria. You women! Mean to the poor, cruel to the down-and out! Indolent and pampered, you demand of your husbands, “bring us a tall, cool drink.” This is serious – I, God, have sworn by my holiness! Be well warned: Judgment Day is coming! Amos 4:1-2, The Message

I’m not sure whether you picked up on Amos’ tone or not, but for the record, this is not a compliment. In this passage Amos is speaking to the wives of wealthy and powerful men and he calls them “cows of Bashan.” Bashan was a very fertile area. The cows of Bashan were famous for being, how should I say this, “well fed.” And so “cows of Bashan” is Amos’ way of telling the Israelites – men and women – that they’re a bunch of fat cows.

Most biblical scholars agree that they didn’t take it well. But this is not just random name-calling on Amos’ part. Think about the nature of a cow. Cows are not really known for their good deeds. In fact, they’re not really known for anything except for their eating. A cow is a walking appetite, an eating machine. In fact, cows actually have four stomachs. They consume – that’s it. The only question a cow ever asks itself is, “where can I get more?”

Now let’s be honest. We live in a society that encourages us to live like cows of Bashan. Think about the commercials and billboards and magazines that we see on a day-to-day basis. They’re always trying to sell us something. In the same way that a cow eats grass all day, our media culture wants us to become a walking appetite for food, money, and pleasure. They want us to become like a cow that only asks itself one question – “where can I get more?”

How can I get a larger house? How can I get a larger salary? How can I drive a newer car? How can I have greater sexual pleasure? How can I be more attractive? Our consumerist culture is an expert at producing cows of Bashan. And the thing about cows – they never say “enough.” A cow never asks, “Where can you get more?” A cow’s only concern is where can I get more. And that’s fine for a cow. But if we listen to Amos’ voice, being a cow of Bashan is not fine for you and for me.

Remember, Israel’s problem was that they didn’t see the connection between the way they treated the poor and the way they worshipped God. And I think it’s really easy for us to fall into this same pattern. We far too often assume that Christianity is about accepting Jesus. But it’s not. Christianity is about obeying Jesus. And from the mouth of Jesus himself, “what you do to the least of these my brothers and sisters you do also to me.”

It’s sad but a lot of people in our world worship on a regular basis, read their bible, and tithe their money and yet still have a hard heart toward the poor and the outcast. And what Amos tells us is that God wants us to feel the same compassion for the poor that he does, that God wants us to live lives where we notice the marginalized and the needy and then respond with generosity and compassion.

One of the bible’s most famous verses is Amos 5:24, which reads, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Martin Luther King, Jr. alluded to this verse in his famous “I have a dream” speech. Dr. King lived in a world where people of color were marginalized, but because he was deeply rooted in scripture he knew the heart of God, and because of that Dr. King spoke the word of God to complacent Christians who, over time, had lost touch with God’s heart. And as we all know, Martin Luther King’s impact was great. And ours can be as well.

But if our impact is to be great, we need to listen to the message of Amos, especially where he calls us cows of Bashan. Because if our world has it’s way with us, we will live our life with fat cow disease.

You may be wondering what to do, as I’m sure Amos’ audience was, and so I’ll leave you with two practical disciplines that you can work into your life as you see fit.

Be generous with your money and your time. Don’t let 100% of your money and time be spent on yourself. Things may seem tight right now, your calendar may be full and your bank account may be low. But, and I’m sorry to break the news, things will never change. Be generous, not because someone else needs your money and your time, but because you need to give it.

Reach out. Form a relationship or a friendship with someone our culture marginalizes. Jesus spent a lot of time with prostitutes. I go on record saying, you have my permission to do the same, assuming you do it in the same Spirit that Jesus did. And so prayerfully reach out and show love to someone that our culture doesn’t love – not because they need the love, but once again, because you need to give it.

And so in closing, there’s only one medicine that cures fat cow disease. REMEMBER. That’s it – we have to remember. The people of Israel forgot that they used to be poor, and so they didn’t love the poor. The people of Israel forgot that they used to be outcasts, and so they didn’t love the outcasts.

Let’s not make the same mistake. As people who believe that in Christ we are alive, let us never forget that first, we were dead in our sins. And so remember. Remember that God saved us to reveal his heart to the world and that our privilege is to extend the same grace and the same justice to others that God has extended to us.

And so “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

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